Jan Smuts and the Chinese

On 24 May 2016, had he still been alive, Jan Smuts would be 146 years old. For those of you too lazy to do the maths, he was born in 1870.

At the age of 34, whilst out of a government role, Smuts was vexed by what was known in South Africa as the ‘Chinese Question‘ or ‘Problem’. Following the Anglo-Boer War (South African War) of 1899-1902, Lord Milner had arranged for Chinese labour to work on the South African gold mines as local black labour was not forthcoming and there was not enough white labour prepared to work at the unskilled labour rates of pay. Getting the mines operational after the war was vital for the economy and to cover the costs of the war. But, for the likes of Smuts, Botha and other South African politicians, the introduction of another racial group into the already volatile melting pot of Southern Africa was anathema.

Smuts felt strongly about this as noted in his letter to JX Merriman on 31 August 1905 (Hancock, vol 2):

You are quite right, the Chinese business is contaminating the very well-spring of our national and social life, and I feel sure that we shall not soon get another such opportunity for getting rid of it as now. Feeling in the Transvaal has been profoundly stirred; those people (along the Rand) who were for sordid reasons in favour of Chinese labour repent and suffer bitterly now … the question is great enough to found its own party, which will yet be the most powerful in South Africa – unless we are really going to be an annexe of China, a Hong Kong…

The last Chinese labourers were eventually sent back in 1910.

This was not the end of Smuts’ dealings wiht the Chinese, however. During World War 1, whilst he was commander in chief of the forces operating in East Africa, he would have encountered the Chinese Contingent. Unfortunately little is known of the work these men did in the theatre other than what Steve Lau has brought to light and which he shared at the 2016 Great War in Africa Conference.

South Africa, however, has retained a relationship with China in some form since these early days. Chinese restaurants provide a tangible link – interestingly during Apartheid Chinese people were classified as black, whilst Japanese were classified white. Yet dispensations were clearly given: there was a Chinese restuarant (Golden Lake) in the Boksburg Lake grounds for as long as I can remember.

Today, China itself is economically involved in developing infrastructure and providing loans to African governments.

Did Smuts forsee this development way back in 1905?

It might be worth a mention that Smuts’ World War 1 nemesis, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck fought the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion.

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